The fustrated filmmaker goes on a TV talk show to save his movie. 2,295 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
It was nearly four o’clock when Tall parked in a loading zone at the CBS lot, and ran into Stage 17. From the lobby, Tall could hear The Dean Keller Show orchestra welcoming a guest, and the audience applauding. Above a set of double doors, a red “Live Show Recording” sign blinked.
“Mr. McCollum!” a woman said in a low, excited voice.
Tall turned to see Tandy Dale, the associate producer who’d handled him the day before, walking toward him with a clipboard against her chest. “When I heard the door open,” Tandy continued, “I thought a civilian was trying to sneak in.”
“Would it be possible to get backstage?” Tall asked. “My wife Diana lost a little enamel compact that belonged to her mother when we were here last night for my appearance, and it’s the only place we haven’t looked.”
“They cleaned this morning, and didn’t turn anything in. But I suppose it could’ve fallen in the couch cushion?”
Tall followed Tandy around the perimeter of the stage. As she unlocked a door marked “PRIVATE,” she looked back at Tall. “Would you like to know your audience scores from last night?”
“How do they measure?”
“We give the audience a survey, and ask them to rate how likely they’d be to watch each guest again. You scored an 8.6 out of 10.”
“Is that good?”
“Oh, that’s exceptional television. Ms. Pauline Kael only scored a 4.2. The average is 6.8.” At the threshold to the Green Room, Tandy paused.
Fifty feet behind them, the hallway opened onto the stage. Tandy put her ear to the door.
“I think Elise is in there. The actress Elise Chalmers. Do you know her?”
“We haven’t met.”
“She plays Imogen in the version of Cymbeline which Pantheon is releasing in October. Some Italian director. I’ll see if it’s all right for you to go in.”
Tandy knocked lightly, then slipped inside. As soon as the latch caught, before he could talk himself out of it, Tall turned and jogged through the dark wing, past a confused grip in overalls and sweat-stained leather gloves, and out onto the stage.
The talk show host Dean Keller, wearing a mohair suit with a thin red tie, sat opposite the journalist George Partridge, who, in his white cardigan, reclined on the couch as if he’d just returned from the Harvard-Yale Regatta. Partridge, facing away from Tall, and in the middle of an anecdote, continued speaking. “The first day on set,” he said, “one of the players tackled him low, and he ended up wearing a knee brace for the rest of the filming.”
Dean held his finger up to interrupt George. “Mr. McCollum, I believe there’s been some confusion. You were on my show yesterday.”
The audience laughed in unison, then began to applaud.
George turned to look at Tall, and his countenance was one of surprise, mixed with mild irritation.
The skin on Tall’s stomach itched from nerves, and his hands felt weak like they used to in high school each time he took the mound in the first inning. He noticed that he was clenching and unclenching his fists to speed the movement of his blood.
“Are we in danger, Mr. McCollum?” Dean asked in jest, before glancing up toward the control booth for help. “Why don’t you sit down? We’ll talk out whatever’s bothering you.”
Tall approached slowly. Then, trying to assume an urbane air, skipped up to the dais and shook Dean’s hand. Dean kept a smile on his face, but his palm was damp when Tall grasped it. He turned to George, who moved over on the couch to give him space to sit. Tall sat, then extended his hand. “Tall McCollum,” he said casually. The audience brayed with laughter, and George smiled.
Tall turned to Dean. “Was I interrupting?” The audience roared again.
“Absolutely not,” said Dean. “This is much more interesting than whatever George was saying.” He turned to the crowd. “Tall McCollum was on our show last night, and evidently he so enjoyed our conversation that he thought he’d come back.”
A man in the second row whistled, and the rest of the room cheered. Dean returned his attention to Tall, still clearly discomfited, but hiding it from the cameras.
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Mr. McCollum?”
Tall took a deep breath through his nose. “I came on this show last night,” he began.
“I remember,” Dean said. The audience howled.
“I’m sorry,” said Tall. “I came on this show last night, and I said some things that I regret.”
George leaned over and made the sign of the cross. “You’re absolved, my son.”
Tall bowed his head in mock humility. “Thank you, Father.”
The crowd applauded.
Tall turned back to Dean. “I came on last night, and bad-mouthed Pantheon Studios. I made it sound like I’d tricked them into making a movie they hadn’t agreed to. And it wasn’t professional, frankly.”
Dean, who’d now shed his incredulity, had an expectant smile on his lips. George leaned forward, enthralled.
“So, I want to take the opportunity,” Tall continued, “while I have your attention, to make amends.” Tall cleared his throat. “This morning, I got hauled into my producer’s office, where I was told Pantheon is killing the project. And it’s not just that I’m going to lose my house — and my wife, probably. As I said last night, sitting right here, what really matters to me is that we’re trying to make a film we don’t think anyone’s made before. But one we think needs to get made. One that tries to make a statement about where we think the world is headed.”
Tall looked out at the crowd to see if he had their attention.
They were as still as congregants in a sanctuary.
Tall forged ahead. “What we’re aiming for is simple, but also very difficult. The film is about a bunch of kids who go out into the desert to purge themselves of capitalism, of government, of technology, so they can start this whole mess over from scratch. To figure out where we went wrong, and to see if we can’t fix it.”
The audience, as if they were listening to Gore Vidal speak in a college auditorium, changed demeanor and applauded respectfully. “And if that sounds like something you want to see,” Tall said, “or something you want to help us make, let’s occupy Pantheon Studios in Hollywood tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM. Bring $1.50, and tell Benny Gorenstein that you want to buy a ticket.”
At 7:00 a.m., Tall was woken from a thin sleep by the ringing phone. He had spent the night on the couch under a fitted sheet he’d found in the hall closet. After returning from the CBS lot, he’d gone upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door. Diana had invited him to enter, but he didn’t believe she wanted to really see him. Between 10:20 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., while The Dean Keller Show aired, at least 15 people called.
Tall waited for Diana to answer, hoping that someone would tell her to turn on the TV and watch her husband redeem himself. But she never did.
As the wall phone in the kitchen bleated, Tall got to his feet and walked stiffly across the living room. He picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“May I speak with William McCollum?” a woman asked.
Tall’s heart raced. “This is he.”
“This is Rose Morton, from Mr. Gorenstein’s office.”
“Yes?” Tall’s voice cracked from strain.
“I apologize for calling so early at home, but the only time Mr. Gorenstein can meet is 7:45 a.m.”
“May I ask what this is regarding?” Tall managed to say. “The protestors, I assume.”
Tall fought his way down Western, weaving around passive drivers, and running two reds en route to Melrose.
He made it through the Wilton intersection, then got trapped at Van Ness behind a pair of matching white Cadillacs. As he waited impatiently for the signal to change, knocking hard on the steering wheel with his knuckles, he stared up at the Pantheon watertower.
The light turned green, and the Cadillacs squatted as the drivers accelerated in concert. Tall followed the right car at a harassing distance, and flirting with the idea of passing on right, looked over and saw that, spilling out from the Pantheon gate, and stretching back a block and a half, loitered a mass of people.
Tall slowed down and pulled up to the curb. Leaning over, he rolled down the passenger window. A young man in a dirty white blouse stood with one foot off the curb.
“What are you all waiting for?” Tall asked him.
“To buy tickets to a movie,” the young man said.
The administrative building on the Pantheon lot had seven floors of offices. Benny Gorenstein occupied the eighth alone. And when Tall exited the elevator, he stepped directly into the receiving room. Rose Morton, Mr. Gorenstein’s secretary, stood up from behind her desk and approached Tall, smiling. She wore a shin-length pencil skirt and a cream chemise, andher hair was coiffed like she’d spent the morning at the salon.
“Good morning, Mr. McCollum,” she said. “Mr. Gorenstein is waiting for you.”
She indicated a set of paneled oak doors in the eastern wall. Tall followed her, and waited with the tension of a soldier preparing to leave the trench.
Rose pushed the doors open in unison. Across the great room, backlit by the rising sun so that the details of his face were imperceptible, Benny Gorenstein, in a pinstriped double-breasted suit, leaned back in his tufted leather chair. The desk in front of him was 12 feet wide, and guarding the corners like a pair of sentries stood two Oscar statuettes.
Rose closed the doors behind Tall. The snap of the latch seating had the finality of a bone breaking.
“Take a seat, Mr. McCollum,” said Mr. Gorenstein.
As Tall ventured forward, his eyes adjusted to the light, and he noticed with some surprise that two people sat in the low armchairs in front of Gorenstein’s desk. To the right was Jack Benton, who’d exchanged his denim and beads for a gray suit. To the left, in flared white pants and a matching top that exposed some of her midriff, perched the actress Elise Chalmers.
Tall sagged into the seat between them without saying a word.
“What do you think this town will look like in 50 years, Mr. McCollum?”
Tall glanced at Benton, who kept his eyes downcast, then at Elise, who’d fixed a nervous smile to her lips.
“Do you think it will get burned to the ground? That a bunch of 20-year-olds with unwashed hair will tear it all down, brick by brick?”
“I think it’s possible,” Tall answered defiantly. “Yes.”
“No, you don’t,” Gorenstein fired back. “And do you know why? Because you’re a salesman. You may think you’re peddling populist idealism. But that, too, is a product. And not even an abstract one.”
Gorenstein leaned forward, stabbing his elbows into his desk.
“Last night, you proposed an occupation of Pantheon Studios. And it’s been occupied.” Gorenstein gestured out the window in the direction of the crowd that had assembled on Melrose. “At least remotely. But what’s your call to action?”
Tall didn’t answer.
“’Buy a ticket,’” said Gorenstein. “‘Go down to Pantheon with $1.50 and tell Benny Gorenstein you want to buy a ticket.’”
“I had to speak in your language,” Tall said, his hands shaking in his lap.
“It’s your language, too, Mr. McCollum. It’s the language of cinema. Movies are the art of capitalism. They cost great sums to make, and we sell them for greater sums so that we may spend more on the next one, and so on ad infinitum.”
Gorenstein looked at Elise, then back at Tall.
“You think I need you. You think that in order for movies to stay relevant in 1969, they must adapt to the new ethos of the youth. And you’re right.” He flicked his head in the direction of the protestors. “They will not buy from me directly. But they will buy. From you.”
Tall clenched his jaw.
“You can sit in an attic and paint,” Gorenstein continued, “free from the strictures of capitalism. But you cannot make a film alone in a room. To make films, you must be a businessman whose fortunes rest in the consumer’s hands.”
Tall shook his head.
Gorenstein dug in deeper. “When I arrived this morning and saw this throng of young men and women leaning against the wall of my studio, do you know what I thought?” He paused for dramatic effect. “I thought, ‘There are my new customers. There is my new audience.’”
“That’s my audience,” Tall said, his voice catching in his throat.
“It isn’t, and it never will be,” Gorenstein said matter-of-factly. “The audience has never belonged to the artist. It belongs to he who controls the distribution of the product.”
Tall’s cheeks prickled with new blood.
“You, Mr. McCollum, are a marketing campaign. And one that doesn’t require me to purchase newspaper ads.” He leaned back again, and his chair creaked. “And that’s why I’m going to let you make this film. Make whatever you like out there in the desert.
Make some unscripted spiritual paroxysm where all your actors are on LSD. You have carte blanche.”
Gorenstein leaned forward again.
“But your wife won’t be in a single frame of it,” Gorenstein said. He looked at Elise again. “Ms. Chalmers, here, will play whatever role you’d planned for Diana.”
Elise lowered her eyes to the carpet. If she’d anticipated a victory when she sat down half an hour before, she hadn’t expected it to come so ingloriously.
“If you want a sensation,” said Gorenstein, “you need a villain.”